TAP026, How to Structure a Story Using the Hero’s Journey (Part 2 of 4)
So, you’ve started to plot out ideas for your story using the Hero’s Journey, and you’ve reached the end of the first act. But now you’re wondering how to transition from the first act to the second, and take your character through to the last leg of the journey. In this episode, I will share with you the five stages of the Hero’s Journey that occur in the second act. And, I will also unpack the second act of the Fellowship of the Ring so you can see the Hero’s Journey in action. Before we get started if you haven’t listened to the first part of this three-part series, then I recommend you listen to episode one first by clicking this link.
TAP026, How to Structure a Story Using the Hero's Journey (Part 2 of 4)
About the Mini-series
This episode is might be a little longer than usual. I’ve been deliberating on whether I should move some of the stages to the next instalment of the series on how to structure a story using the Hero’s Journey. Now that I’ve said that out loud, it doesn’t make sense to break up the second act. Instead, I’ve chosen to look at act two as a whole. So, all of this information means there is only one more instalment left in this series after this show.
A Note About this Episode
Before we get started, I want to apologise in advance for screwing up the names of characters and places in the Lord of the Rings. What can I say? I’m Australian and by default, I’m a little lazy. We like to shorten as many words as possible. For instance, “afternoon” becomes “arvo” and “good day” becomes “g’day.” Just a side note, I’m also trying to learn French, and it’s a nightmare. My point is, I’m trying and failing, but I’m really trying. These place names are so difficult to pronounce and, I do practice the pronunciation. But, something magical happens when I turn on the microphone, it’s like I forget everything I’ve rehearsed and are now pronouncing these names for the first time.
Back to the Hero’s Journey.
This episode will contain spoilers from the Fellowship of the Ring. So, why did I decide to do this? Many blog posts that discuss the Hero’s Journey, merely break down the twelve or seventeen stages and that’s it. And, a minority share a list of novel’s and films that follow this story structure. However, I wanted to take this one step further because while I can tell you how to structure a story, showing you the structure in action is a far better way to learn how to tell a story.
Just like three-act-structure, the second act of the hero’s journey covers fifty percent off the story. The entire second act takes the protagonist from the ordinary world into the Special World. As I said in the previous episode, the stages along the Hero’s Journey are not necessarily one scene but quite often can cover many scenes, as you’ll see in the examples that I share with you.
Crossing the Threshold
The fifth stage of the Hero’s Journey sits on the cusp between the first and the second act. In these scenes, the Hero is now ready and committed to the journey ahead. From this point onwards there is no turning back. At this point in the story, the protagonist and his companions step into the Special World. By crossing the threshold, the hero leaves their comfort zone and the ordinary world to embark on a journey into the unknown.
It’s a choice to act not something passive that just happens or falls in his lap. He might be pushed, but in the end, the hero chooses to act. So, there is a minor change in the character. While the hero might still be filled with fear, they are actively choosing the adventure. I think this point is key. The transition between the first and the second act really shows a character making active choices as opposed to a character who is trying to avoid situations that are happening to him. He’s actively playing a role.
An example from the Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo decides to trust Strider and follow him to Rivendell with his companion after Gandalf fails to show up at Bree. In these moments we see his commitment to finding a safe place to hide the ring from Sauron, and he believes that Rivendell is the safest place. After getting stabbed by a Morgul blade carried by one of the Nazgul, Frodo finally makes it to Rivendell with the aid of Arwen.
At this stage, it appears that Frodo’s journey has come to an end because he has reached Rivendell and Gandalf makes it explicitly clear that the secret council cannot ask any more of Frodo. However, Lord Elrond insists that the one ring cannot stay in Rivendell because the elves plan to leave middle earth. But, during the secret council, Frodo starts to become seduced by the ring and gets sucked into the real adventure by volunteering to take the ring to Mordor and casting it into the fires of Mt Doom.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
In the sixth stage of the hero’s journey is all about the struggle. Our hero undergoes trials and tests and must overcome each challenge that is set before him in order to reach the goal at the end. But, these challenges are not without purpose. The hero’s skills and powers are tested and refined every step of the way. Every obstacle that he faces helps the reader gain a deeper insight into his character. These struggles create an identifiable character that is sympathetic in the eye of the reader. Your reader should be rooting for him at this stage, and just as committed to seeing the journey through to the end.
It’s at this point in the journey that the cast of characters expands. And, the hero finds out who can be trusted and who cannot. Each of the allies and enemies helps prepare the hero for the ordeals that are yet to come. So, every new encounter has a purpose.
An Example from the Fellowship of the Ring:
The good news is, Frodo isn’t going to Mt Doom alone. Upon declaring that he will take the ring to Mordor, Frodo learns he has allies. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli join his quest and promise to protect him. Boromir also joins the fellowship, but you get a sense that he has other motives. I’m not saying that his motives are bad, but he makes it pretty clear that he has a rivalry with Aragorn. And, Boromir also believes the ring should stay in Gondor so they can use it against the enemy and finally overpower Sauron. Samwise, Merry, and Pippin who are eavesdropping on the secret council meeting also volunteer to join the quest.
Moments before Frodo’s departure from Rivendell, Bilbo offers Frodo his old sword, and a protective tunic made from Mithril, which acts as a type of chain mail. As Frodo puts on the shirt, Bilbo is tempted by the power of the ring, but is shocked by his reaction and apologises for his part to play in the events that unfolded. It’s not until the nine companions leave the safety of Rivendell that these alliances are tested. But for now, they are all united with one purpose.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
In this stage of the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist gets closer to his goal as he approaches the inmost cave. It’s not a physical cave, but sometimes it can be an actual location in which lies danger. Or, the approach could be an inner conflict that the hero has not faced up until now. As this stage suggests, it’s all about the approach because the hero has not entered it at this point. These scenes are all about the planning and strategy that’s needed to defeat the villain.
Once the hero approaches the threshold to the inmost cave, fear and doubt resurface, just like in the call to adventure. At this point, the hero needs time to reflect upon his journey and the road ahead. Why? Because it helps the audience and the hero to come to grips with the magnitude of the ordeal ahead.
An Example from the Fellowship of the Ring:
To avoid the mines of Moria, Gandalf attempts to take the fellowship through the Misty Mountains and then through the Gap of Rohan and east to Mordor. But, Saruman has other plans. After discovering the misty mountains are being watched, he takes the pass of Caradhras. In order to persuade Gandalf to take the more dangerous route through the mines, Saruman brings down the mountains on the fellowship. Nevertheless, Gandalf refuses to play ball and leaves the decision to Frodo who chooses the mines because of how fondly Gimli speaks of them and is blissfully unaware of the dangers ahead.
However, the official approach to the inmost cave occurs deep underground as they navigate through the mines of Moria. Upon releasing their mistake and getting trapped in the entrance of the mines after an attack from a monster, they have no choice but to go through the mines. While deciding upon the correct path through the mines, Frodo and Gandalf have a discussion about Gollum who has been trailing behind them for quite some time. This discussion becomes philosophical when Frodo confesses that he wishes the ring never came to him. Gandalf reminds Frodo that there is more than just evil at work and that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, just like he was meant to be the next bearer. The conversation gives Frodo the courage to continue his quest.
Basically, the ordeal scenes are the midpoint of the story. And, this is where the hero faces his biggest test so far. Grim news reaches the protagonist, and he must recalculate and make his next move. In Campbell’s mono-myth these scenes are referred to as the belly of the whale. Christopher Vogler refers to this as a black moment in his adaptation.
Our Hero must confront their greatest fear. If they survive the hero will emerge transformed, but in order to receive this transformation, they must face a dangerous test or a deep inner crisis. To achieve this, the Hero must draw upon his skills and experiences he gathered along the approach to the inmost cave, to be victorious.
Everything the hero holds dear is put on the line in the ordeal scenes. Eventually, the hero or one of his companions realises that sometimes sacrifices must be made for the greater good of the journey. As you’d expect the hero emerges victorious, but not without cost. A metaphorical or literal death has changed the hero forever. Through this grief, the hero is transforming into a stronger version of themselves.
An Example from the Fellowship of the Ring:
Gimli spots his cousin’s final resting place as the fellowship enter the beautiful dwarf city. This scene is where Gandalf discovers a journal in recalling the dwarves final actions. While, listening to the horror of their last hours Pippin gets a little too curious and accidentally knock a skeleton down a well, alerting the Orcs of their presence in the mines. His actions led to a fight with the orcs in which the fellowship are dangerously outnumbered.
However, the Balrog is awoken and scatters the orcs, momentarily saving them from their doom, only to chase the nine companions through the mines and across the bridge. Gandalf challenges the Balrog to a dual and ends up, getting dragged down to the depths of the mines.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Our Hero emerges from the ordeal as a stronger person and often with a prize. In essence, the protagonist and his companions are rewarded for facing death. But, the risk of losing the reward looms over them because they still have to complete the rest of the journey. A reward may come in many forms. It could be an object of great importance, a secret, higher knowledge, reconciliation with an ally, or even their own lives. Sometimes the reward can have greater ramifications for the journey ahead or even aid his return back to the ordinary world.
An Example from the Fellowship of the Ring:
Gandalf’s sacrifice at the bridge allows the remaining members of the fellowship to escape with their lives. Unfortunately, this is their only reward. They have no time to grieve because as Aragorn reminds them, the hills will be swarming with Orcs by nightfall. And this is that amazing moment where you see in just a single glance, the depth of Frodo’s internal pain at the loss of one of his closest friends and mentors. I’ve seen that scene so many times, and I still cry.
The next five stages of the Hero’s Journey are Crossing the Threshold, Tests, Allies, and Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, the Ordeal, and the Reward. Between now and the next instalment in the mini-series on the hero’s journey, I want you to continue to read a novel or watch a film that follows this story structure. As you watch or read, see if you notice the five stages of the Hero’s Journey in the second act. Create a spreadsheet or open up a note-taking app, and record these stages, and takes notes based upon what happens in these scenes. Analysing other stories will help you to become a better storyteller.
Now, I want to hear from you. Let me know how you got on with activity by sharing in the comments section below or tweet me at WriterADHay.
In next week’s show, we will discuss the final three stages of the Hero’s Journey which occur in the third act, plus five tips on how to structure a story using the Hero’s Journey.
Thanks for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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